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  • Portraits of Grief : Telling Details and the Testimony of Trauma

    Miller, Nancy K., 1941-

    differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, Volume 14,Number 3, Fall 2003, pp. 112-135 (Article)

    Published by Duke University Press

    For additional information about this article

    Access Provided by City University of New York at 06/29/11 4:38PM GMT



  • Copyright 2003 by Brown University and d i f f e r e n c e s : A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 14:3

    nancy k. miller

    Portraits of Grief:Telling Details and the Testimony of Trauma

    In the summer of 2002, Times Books published a volume containing the 1,910 Portraits of Grief that appeared in the New York Times between September 15 and December 31, 2001. The 1,910 stories that readers had consumed in the newspaper along with their daily breakfast or their morning commute were now compiled into a manageable archive and filed in alphabetical order. Rescued from the ephemera of the daily paper and the fluctuations of the internet, the portraits finally came to rest between hard covers.1 In the prefatory material to the volume, editors and reporters characterize the work they did in creating this popular and much remarked on journalism. Their commentary both describes how the genre came into beingas a direct response to the flyers that had materialized along with the news reportsand provides a frame through which the portraits should be viewed.

    Almost immediately after the disaster, the frantic search for survivors took the form of flyers identifying the missing. These home-made artifacts were hurriedly pasted onto walls, mailboxes, lampposts, and phone booths, papering the walls of bus shelters and train stations. In addition to often detailed physical descriptions, the flyers typically

  • d i f f e r e n c e s 113

    Figure 1Lorie Novak,Grand Central Station Memorial Wall, October 24, 2002.

    included photographs of the loved ones, almost always smiling. As the hope of finding survivors faded, the distinction between the missing and the dead began to blur. It is no doubt for this reason that as of the second day of reporting, the original title of the series, Among the Missing, with its implicit hope of recovery, disappeared, to become Portraits of Grief.

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    Given their spontaneous and multiple origins, the flyers varied widely in size, style, and presentation. The newsprint portraits were of necessity uniform. As in a high school yearbook, everyone memorialized was given equal space and equal treatment.

    How could readers be made to care daily about the individual dead who, unlike the subjects of traditional New York Times obituaries, were neither eminent nor glamorous? At the one-month anniversary of the profiles, an editorial titled Among the Missing analyzed the newspapers attempts to master the civilian trauma. Faced with the massive numbers of victims, the editors pondered the best strategy for identifying the singu-larity of each life within the constraints of the form: Each profile is only a snapshot, a single still frame lifted from the unrecountable complexity of a lived life. On the first day of reporting the losses, the metaphor of photography had also figuredrecalling the effect of the flyers: Snap-shots of Their Lives, With Family and at Work ran the headline (15 Sep. 2001, A11).

    In the introduction to the volume, Janny Scott, the reporter chiefly responsible for the profiles in the earliest coverage, makes explicit the connection between the portraits and the flyers, the verbal and the visual. We began, she explains,

    dialing the phone numbers on the flyers. What we wanted were stories, anecdotes, tiny but telling details that seemed to reveal something true and essential about how each person lived. [. . .] The profiles [. . .] were closer to snapshotsconcise, impression-istic, their power at least as much emotional as intellectual. And they were utterly democratic. (ix)

    Scott continues to make the analogy to the visual medium as she looks for a metaphor to render the vast undertaking. Like a panoramic photo-graph, the project gathered everyone it could and attempted to bring each one fleetingly into focus (ix). Howell Raines, then executive editor, also embraces the discourse of photography in his foreword to the volume: Im convinced, he explains, that the core of the portraits appeal lies in our metropolitan desks decision to cast these stories as snapshots of lives interrupted as they were being actively lived, rather than in the traditional obituary form. Most of the people who died would not have been the sub-jects of the traditional obituaries, he observes, a powerful storytelling format in itself [. . .] entirely appropriate to the task of recording the key facts of prominent (or notorious) lives (vii).

  • d i f f e r e n c e s 115

    In these statements that self-consciously define the newspa-pers project, the visual trumps the verbal, almost as though the news-paper of record found itself at a loss for words, words suddenly seeming inadequate to the task of representing what makes an individual life a life, unable to convey its emotional truth. What narrative form was equal to that task? If not the classic obituary, then what? What shape to give to the stories? In the face of collective disaster, whose scale strained the imagination, the anecdote was seized upon as a form suited to rendering the familiar acts of ordinary life. Like the snapshot, the anecdote, through the brevity of its narrative, catches life in its everyday dimensions. In this particular context, moreover, again like the snapshot, the anecdotes appeal resides in its ability to carry both life and death, present and past. What once was but recalled to memory somehow still is.

    Lets return now to the language of reporter Janny Scotts account of how the portraits were invented. What we wanted, she said, were stories, anecdotes, tiny but telling details that seemed to reveal something true and essential about how each person lived. The anecdote here is set up in apposition to the detail, but the two are not interchange-able; their relationship is not reversible. The effective anecdote requires details; but details by themselves do not necessarily add up to an anecdote. Nonetheless, in the slippery discourse about the portraits, it is no easy matter to separate anecdote from detail. The anecdote might even be said to serve as a telling detail in a lifes interrupted story.

    This past January, the New Yorker devoted a column to the portraits, fleshing out some of the back story on the reporting and the reporters. Here (unlike Rainess recourse to the snapshot metaphor), the portrait of portrait making, as it were, retains its narrative function. Once again, the creation of the portraitsthe subject of some fascinationis retold . . . to a reporter. And again, the anecdote alternates with the detail in a by now familiar story: the birth of a genre. The reporters placed phone calls to the numbers displayed on the flyers in order to glean details about the lives of a few hundred among the thousands of individuals who had disappeared. The portraits here are characterized as miniprofiles, and the first batch of them as vignettestwenty vignettes, averaging less than two hundred words each. The portraits are further described as sketchespicking up the pictorial codesketches that revealed an emblematic, usually endearing anecdote or character trait (Singer 30). In other words, the portraits seen here conform to the dictionary definition of the anecdote: [A] usually short narrative of an interesting, amusing, or

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    curious incident, often biographical and generally characterized by human interest (Websters). The anecdote has the right dimensions for evoking a brief life, which was mainly the case among the dead of September 11.

    Editorial self-consciousness about the portraits, we learn, was immediate. For if the portraits sprang up spontaneously, their production was not unsupervised. One month into the daily practice (around the time of the newspapers editorial about the portraits to which I referred earlier), a memo was circulated admonishing contributors to avoid certain tropes. Reporters were encouraged to reach for illuminating details beyond the bond traders who loved their wife and kids, the perks of the Cantor Fitzgerald guys, and how the deceased was such a devoted student of The Simpsons or Bruce Springsteen (Singer 31). When asked to describe her experience of the interview process, Jan Hoffman, a reporter who turned in a large number of the portraits, says that what moved her when she was on the phone with the survivors (I have never wept so much while work-ing, she confesses), was the crispness of their memories, the way they described these poignant, funny, heroic moments. As she reflects upon the process of eliciting responses, Hoffman sounds a bit like a safecracker: you have to listen patiently, until you have that click where you can see the person and how they moved on the planet (31). The desirable anec-dote for the Portraits of Grief, we might say, is narrative dna. (The dnaopens the lock of identity, if only you supply the right reference sample [30 Nov. 2002, B3].)

    Here is an example from a set of portraits published on Decem-ber 8, 2002. Steven Schlag.

    When a neighbor was in her third pregnancy and uncomfortably late, Mr. Schlag, 41, a partner with Cantor Fitzgerald who lived in Franklin Lakes, NJ, whipped up his chicken cacciatore, which had helped his wife go into labor. (It didnt do the trick for the neighbor.) And when a friend was schedul


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